The Netherlands has traditionally been a global top player in floriculture. A sector that is at the forefront of technological innovations, particularly through artificial intelligence in recent decades. In his book Technology Meets Flowers [Springer, 2021], Prof. Dr. Eric van Heck, Professor of Information Management and Markets at Rotterdam University, outlines the challenges facing the sector. Eric van Heck, professor of Information Management and Markets at Rotterdam School of Management, sketches the story of flourishing algorithms and innovative flower power.
How did you get into the flower business?
"I was in my PhD studies at Wageningen University in the early 1990s. The subject was Electronic Data Interchange [EDI], or links between computers. Now, the floriculture sector wanted to develop digital standard messages between the various market parties. The work was still very manual. If, for example, a grower delivered a batch of flowers to the auction, the data were entered into the computer using an auction letter. But in a sector with perishable goods, speed is important. With EDI, we ensured that the entire process ran digitally. We don't know any better now, but at the time, this was innovative. Incidentally, the system in question is still being used after thirty years."
"In recent years, my research has largely focused on artificial intelligence. Within Erasmus University I work together with Wageningen University & Research, among others, and with companies such as Royal FloraHolland and the Zentoo cooperative, a collaboration between twelve chrysanthemum growers. Algorithms that we have developed have made the sector more demand-driven. So it is no longer a question of producing and 'it will probably be sold somewhere', but really based on the customer's wishes. This provides economic benefits, but also contributes to a more sustainable society."
"Artificial intelligence provides a valuable source of information about the cultivation and the market"
Your book contains several examples of successful algorithms.
"You can think of the optimisation of transport and distribution. The transport of flowers from the grower or auction to the retailer will increasingly be done by electric vehicles. Algorithms determine the optimum route and choose the recharging points, partly on the basis of weather conditions. After all, the vehicles are dependent on solar and wind energy. In short, fewer kilometres and generated by sustainable energy. Digital technology and circularity go hand in hand here."
"Artificial intelligence provides valuable information. On the one hand, about cultivation: algorithms can predict the growth rate of flowers and detect fungal diseases. On the other hand, about the market: an auctioneer wants the highest possible price, but cannot leave the flowers standing too long. So he is interested in the behaviour of bidders and looking for the right moment to sell. We have designed a very complex algorithm that advises the auctioneer about the minimum transaction size for a batch of flowers and the right timing. This strikes a balance between speed of distribution and selling price for growers."
Flowers do not have a sustainable image.
"It is getting better and better. Thanks to technology, less and less water, energy and chemicals are used. Take the control of insects in the greenhouses. This is traditionally done with sticky tape strips and poison. One of our students, Bram Tijmons, has set up the company PATS indoor drone solutions. An automated system uses an infrared camera to detect flying moths and eradicate them with a drone. It is being implemented by more and more growers. But the horticultural sector is very innovative anyway, especially when it comes to realising circularity through digitalisation. Other sectors can learn from this. If you want to know what the economy is going to look like you have to look at horticulture!"
"Technology can play a big role in developing new, sustainable business models"
"But of course it is not perfect yet. The use of chemicals and water must be reduced further, and abroad there is still child labour in floriculture. And in the Westland, there is a challenge. The greenhouses are heated by a gas bubble in the ground. But the Netherlands wants to get rid of gas. A number of companies have already switched over and are heated with residual heat from the industrial port complex in Rotterdam. We are also investigating other possibilities."
So, circular and digital go together?
"That is of course the aim, but there is still a world to be won. In many sectors, circularity is limited to recycling. The trend is to digitise existing business models and only then to look at the ecological side of the story. Fortunately, most of our students think differently; for them, the environment is an essential issue. But technology can play a major role in developing new, sustainable models. A great example is vertical farming, where crops are grown on top of each other. But automation itself must also become greener. Computers are not exactly environmentally friendly at the moment and are still hardly recycled. Data centres guzzle energy and use a lot of water for cooling. This is also a major challenge."